22 January 2013

Bird Items Use in Omaha Indian Artifacts

The Omaha Tribe lives in the northeast part of Nebraska on a reservation that is part of their historical lands. This tribe was studied extensively around the turn-of-the-century, and some of its tribal lore and history were recorded, including artifacts that were sent to the Peabody Museum (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972). These artifacts were returned to the Omaha Tribe in 1990, and are now being curated at the University of Nebraska State Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I reviewed the items to determine the species of birds represented in material associated with the artifacts.

More than 50 bird types or species had tribal names (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972: 104-105), but the tribe was familiar with many more species. Some of the birds recognized by the tribe such as the kingbird, blackbird, crane, curlew, dove, ducks, geese, larks, and game birds, were a source of food (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972). Other species, including raptors and the Pileated Woodpecker, adorned ceremonial objects, headdresses, and pipes.

In the following listing and analysis of objects, the numbers were assigned by the Peabody Museum when they first received the artifacts. Once the species could be determined, I reviewed additional references to evaluate the tribal lore and mythology that were associated with the artifact and its bird material. When available, information on the occurrence and distribution of a bird species is summarized, in order to give some perspective on its status before and around the time when the artifacts were collected.

Calumet (Friendship Pipe): 84-75-47809. This pipe includes a Mallard (Pa'hitu; green neck) head and breast, and seven Golden Eagle (Xitha'cka; white eagle) feathers in a fan connected by a leather cord through the feathers' shafts. Eagle down feathers are tied to the ends of this cord and a second cord through the end of the feather quills. Two Red-tailed Hawk (In'beciga; yellow-tail) feathers are attached by red cloth tied near the head of the Mallard; three eagle primary feathers are wrapped around the pipe shaft; about ten Great Horned Owl (Pa'nuhu heton egos; owl having horns) feathers are inserted into the back of the Mallard breast, and tied with leather to the wooden pipe stem; and Mallard feathers are at the base of the downy feathers. A Pileated Woodpecker (Wazhinigapa; bird head) bill is on the end of the pipe opposite the Mallard head. The upper mandible of the woodpecker was turned back over the red crest and painted red (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972: 377).

Calumet (Friendship Pipe): 84-75-47810. This item is similar to the previous item except that Barred Owl (Wapu'gahahada) feathers are wrapped at the end of the Mallard breast.

Both items apparently were used in the Wa'wan ("to sing for someone") ceremony by the Omaha tribe. "The two objects essential to the ceremony were similar to (a) pipestem and ornamented symbolically but they were not attached to bowls and were never used for smoking" (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972: 376-401). These pipe stems were "held in the greatest reverence." Made of ash, one pipe was blue, representing the feminine element, and the other was green, symbolizing the masculine forces. An Indian, "the one who sings," initiated the ceremony by carrying the pipe, along with many gifts, to the lodge or village of a trade partner. During the ceremony, gifts were exchanged. Because of the large quantities of gifts needed to initiate the ceremony, the participants were wealthy men of a high social standing. Although the historic description of the ceremony says the objects should be blue and green, the two items in the collection are both green. They may have been painted the same color since they were being made to sell, rather than for use in a tribal ceremony.

According to Fletcher and LaFlesche (1972: 380), the birds had specific roles. The eagle was a bird of tireless strength: The owl represented night and the woodpecker, the day and sun; these birds also stood for death and life, respectively. "The downy feathers at the end of the thong that bound together the fan-like appendages were sometimes spoken of as symbolizing eggs and again, as the feathers of the young eagle, which fell from the bird when it matured and was able to take its flight." A gourd associated with the Walwan also represented eggs. These friendship pipes are similar to those used in the Pawnee Hako ceremony (Fletcher 190001), but the prominent eagle figure in the Omaha ceremony was represented by corn in the Pawnee version of the same ceremony.

Swallow-tailed Kite: 84-75-47815. The American Swallow-tailed Kite (In'be zhonka; fork-tailed kite) was an ornamental bird of war. The breast cavity is lined with nettle weave cloth and stuffed with bison fur. A scalp is attached to the left leg of the kite. A kite was part of the Sacred War Pack kept in the Tent of War (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972: 412).

Prairie Falcon: 84-75-101/47816. A Prairie Falcon (no tribal name given) wrapped in elk bladder skin was designated as an ornamental bird of war. The two feet are wrapped together using rawhide. A bird with the same museum number as this item was part of the Sacred War Pack (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972: 412). The bird, however, was mistakenly identified as a Swallow-tailed Kite since the specimen had the same number in the collection as a Prairie Falcon.

Birds of War (six in a box): 47817. Each is a carcass of a Purple fey Martin (no tribal name given), and the upper two-thirds of each skin is wrapped in elk bladder skin. These birds, identified as swallows in Fletcher and LaFlesche (1972: 412), were part of the Sacred War Pack kept in the Tent of War. Four of the birds were laid together beneath the flag found in the War Pack. The other two martins were placed beneath the other four birds.

Sacred Wolf Skin. A wolf skin was also part of the Sacred War Pack. This artifact includes several items - an elkskin bladder pouch, which contains the fangs and head of a rattlesnake (48261); a feather roach ornament (T678); a single attached feather, perhaps from an eagle, enclosed by hollow bone at the base; and dyed hair tied to the base of the feather quill. The wolf skin was used in a war-party ceremony to promote a vision in a member of the party and help in discerning the future (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972: 415).

Model Tepee Cover: 82-45-27585. A model of a tepee cover that includes what appears to be graphic representations of feathers.

Ear of Corn: 84-75?-47814. An ear of corn is bound to a wooden stick and a large down feather (the bird species could not be determined) is attached to the stick by the quill portion of the feather.

Pouch: 84-75-48300. An elk bladder pouch with "gealena" and swan (Mi'xacon; white goose) feather down. The artifact in the collection does not include swan down, but the down was listed on the item's description prepared by the Peabody Museum.

Ladle: 82-45-27557. A wooden ladle about six inches in diameter with a duck head-effigy handle. The bill of the effigy serves as a portion of the ladle handle.

Wolf Skin War Robe: 98-12-51841. The robe includes six Golden Eagle feathers tied to the wolf skin with red wool; four feathers are tied to the upper portion of the front of the skin, and two are tied to the lower portion of the robe, on the back side.

Arrows. Four arrows include feathers of the Great Horned Owl. Two arrows have all owl feathers; two have two owl feathers and feathers of another bird which could not be identified.

Species Analysis

There are at least ten different species represented in these few Omaha tribal artifacts. Raptors predominate, with waterfowl, a woodpecker, and the Purple Martin also represented. Most of the species noted were common in the Omaha tribal area in the decades before the artifacts would have been collected (Aughey 1878, Agersborg 1885, Ducey 1988, Ducey, unpublished, and other references). Other species such as the swan, kite, and Pileated Woodpecker, would have been less common.

Birds were of secondary importance to Plains Indians, who largely relied on bison as a source for food (Ubelaker and Wedel 1975). Bird parts, especially those of raptors, were recognized as having greater ceremonial uses. The unusual American Swallow-tailed Kite, used by the Omaha Tribe, was part of a Sacred War Pack, but was apparently separated from the other items that were part of a pack thoroughly described when it was collected (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972:411). An Arikaree bundle contained several hawks and owls (Ubelaker and Wedel 1975).

The swan was an uncommon spring and fall visitor in the Omaha tribal region; the one mentioned under "Pouch" probably was the Trumpeter Swan. It was seen along the Missouri River in May 1834 (Washington County) and in October 1843 (Burt County). It migrated in small numbers in spring and fall along the Missouri River in southeast Dakota Territory (Agersborg 1885), an area north of Cedar, Dixon, and Dakota Counties in present-day northeast Nebraska. "Swans were connected with women. The swan had this association since it provided clothing that gives comfort and it is also a beautiful animal. The left wing of the bird was a symbol of its power" (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972). A swan skin also decorated a staff belonging to the ceremonial director of the hunt.

Other tribes living in the same region used swan material in ceremonies or as part of tribal myths. The Eastern Dakota (Santee), living in northeast Nebraska near the Ponca Tribe on the Missouri River, had the Owl Feather Dance. Each member had a whistle made of a swan's long wing bone (Wissler 1916:110). Swans also played a role in Pawnee tribal myths such as the Eagle and Sun Dance Myth (Dorsey 1906). For the Arikaree, swans were an important source of meat, and their plumage and body parts (heads and wings) were used for decoration and functional objects (Parmalee 1977).

The Mallard was an abundant summer resident and probably was used as food, based on remains excavated from an Omaha village (O'Shea et al. 1982). This duck was noted in the following counties: between 1780 and 1840 in Dakota, based on remains from the Big Omaha Village; 1820 in Washington; May 1834 in Thurston; May 1843 in Nemaha/Otoe and Burt; and October 1843 in Washington. Several specimens were collected in April and June 1865 in Dixon and Dakota Counties. Mallards were also abundant along the Missouri and its tributaries, and in summer in southeast Dakota Territory. Other tribes likely would have also used this species of waterfowl as food. This use was referenced more often than its role in decorating tribal artifacts or in tribal myths.

The American Swallow-tailed Kite was probably more common in the middle 1800s than around 1875, when the species seemed to decline in numbers along the Missouri River. This raptor probably nested in the area in limited numbers. It was noted in May 1833 in Dakota, Dixon, Cedar, and Burt Counties; May 1843 in Knox County; and 1859-60 along the Missouri River. A pair was reported as nesting in Dixon County for the four years prior to 1865 when two birds were collected to see if locusts were eaten (Aughey 1878). In 1893 this kite was still considered an accidental visitor in the Omaha region (White 1893), and was still expected as a breeding bird about 1885 in northeast Nebraska, near southeast Dakota Territory (Agersborg 1885). The only possible Nebraska nesting record was for about 1885 in Dixon County, which was part of the Omaha Indian tribal area.

Among native American tribes in Nebraska, the Omaha tribal record was the only known reference for this kite's use in a tribal medicine bundle. The relatively fewer numbers in comparison to other raptors such as hawks and owls, may have been the reason for its use in Omaha tribal artifacts. The Cheyenne tribe was familiar with this kite, also called the "blue eagle," which was "formerly common along the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers" (Moore 1986). A Swallow-tailed Kite was included in a drawing of birds recognized by these Indians. Prehistoric bird remains from 51 Ankara sites along the Missouri River in South Dakota did not contain remains of any kites (Parmalee 1977).

The Red-tailed Hawk was probably a common, though not abundant, raptor in the Omaha tribal area. It was noted in 1856 on the Niobrara River, and in 1856 at Fort Randall on the Missouri River. A specimen was collected in Dakota County in 1870, but this species was only a rare breeding resident about 1885 in southeast Dakota Territory. Raptors such as this hawk, were used mostly for a variety of ceremonial purposes - for personal adornment, as symbols of strength and courage, and in sacred or ceremonial bundles. Most references to what could have been this species simply said "hawk."

The limited occurrence of the Golden Eagle could have contributed to its importance in Omaha tribal lore. It was probably a rare to uncommon nester in the Omaha tribal area, where a mix of prairie and scattered trees would have provided suitable nesting habitat. It occurred in 1820 in Washington County; still nested in east-central Nebraska in the 1880s; was a transient and nested in the Omaha area about 1894; and was a rare breeding resident about 1885 in southeast Dakota Territory.

The importance of eagles such as the Golden Eagle, is shown by their role for another Plains tribe to the west of the Omaha. For the Arikaree, "probably no other bird played a more important role in the social and ceremonial activities of the Plains Indians than did the eagle. Eagles appear predominantly in the myths held by many tribes. They represented symbols of strength and courage. Feathers and body parts were worn or carried to signify rank or individual standing. The capture of these birds often involved detailed planning, special preparation and ritual, and group organization." (Parmalee 1977.) The tail feathers of the Golden Eagle were especially sought, often being taken through complex rituals, especially for Plains tribes west of the middle Missouri River and in Dakota Territory (Wilson 1928).

The Prairie Falcon was an uncommon visitor. It was noted in October 1856 at Fort Randall on the Missouri, and in 1856 and 18741 along the Missouri, though not abundant. It was rare during spring migrations about 1885 in southeast Dakota Territory.

The Great Horned Owl was a common permanent resident. It was noted in suitable woodland habitat in 1856 throughout the Missouri River region. A specimen was collected in 1865 in Dakota County. This owl species was a common breeding resident about 1885 in southeast Dakota Territory. Feathers of this species also played a role in ceremonies and dances of the Mandan, according to the journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied, who visited the tribe in the winter of 1833-34. In most cases, as with hawks, owls were not identified to a specific species. The Omaha did, however, recognize the difference in species, since they had different names for each group.

The Barred Owl, an uncommon resident, would have been more common downriver from the tribal area along the Missouri. It was noted in May 1834 in Thurston County, and one was seen along the Missouri River in Cedar County in 1867. About 1885, this owl was a common winter resident, with a few birds present in summer. The use of this species would have been more common among the Omaha, and limited with tribes living further west. Extensive forested areas along the Missouri River floodplain that are used as habitat by the Barred Owl, would not have occurred further north and west on the Plains.

The Pileated Woodpecker was noted in burial material excavated from an Omaha Indian village near Homer, Dakota (O'Shea et al. 1982). This species was noted in May 1843 in Nemaha/Otoe Counties, and in October 1843 in Dakota County. It was rare, if not casual, in the Missouri River region of Nebraska, and probably only a winter visitor about 1885 in heavy timber along the Missouri River in southeast Dakota Territory.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was included in the listing for this species for the Omaha tribe (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1972:105). Remains of this woodpecker were discovered among materials excavated at the Big Omaha Village near the present town of Homer (O'Shea et al. 1982). The remains were thought to have been from birds received through trade with tribes in southeast North America, where this woodpecker occurred naturally.

Both of the woodpecker species described above were used to decorate sacred tribal pipes (O'Shea et al. 1982). The use of Pileated Woodpecker bills would have been rare, due to the limited occurrence of this species in the Omaha tribal area. Use of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker would have been very limited, since it was available only as a trade object. In reference to the Mandans, Maximilian wrote:

The Indians cannot obtain such pipes but at considerable expense: many of the necessary ornaments are not to be procured among them, such as the upper bill and the red crown of the pileated woodpecker, a bird which is not found so high up the Missouri [as North Dakota]. For the head of one of these woodpeckers, which was brought from St. Louis, they gave a large handsome buffalo robe, worth six or eight dollars.

The Purple Martin was a common summer resident, nesting in large trees along the Missouri River. It was recorded in May 1834 in Dixon County; May 1843 at Fort Randall on the Missouri; April 1854 at Cedar Island near Fort Randall; and May 1854 near the mouth of the Vermillion River and at Fort Randall. It was most abundant about 1856 along the wooded bottoms of streams, where dead trees were its favorite breeding places. Several specimens were collected in Burt and Dakota Counties in May and June of 1865, 1867, and 1868. Other records are from about 1874 at Cedar Island, and this species was common in summer about 1885 in southeast Dakota Territory. The Purple Martin, "more generally than any of the others [swallows], captures locusts at all stages of their growth," (Aughey 1878:26).

The ceremonial importance of the Purple Martin could be related to the spiritual importance attached to other swallow-like birds. Specifically, the Lewis and Clark narratives refer to a place the Indians called "Mountain of Little People or Spirits," an elevated part of the grassy plains in what is now northern Cedar County. The expedition narrative (Thwaites 1969: 122-123) explained the special recognition of this mound in the following passage:

The surrounding plain is open, void of timber and level to a great extent, hence the wind from whatever quarter it may blow drives with unusual force over the naked Plains and against this hill; the insects of various kinds are thus involuntarily driven to the mound by the force of the wind, or fly to its leeward side for shelter; the small birds whose food they are consequently resort in great numbers to this place in search of them; particularly the small brown martin of which we saw a vast number hovering on the leeward side of the hill, when we approached it in the act of catching those insects; they were so gentle that they did not quit the place until we had arrived within a few feet of them.

One evidence which the Indians give for believing this place to be the residence of some unusual spirits is that they frequently discover a large assemblage of birds about this mound is in my opinion a sufficient proof to produce in the savage mind a confident belief of all the properties which they ascribe [to] it.

Based on the brown coloration of these birds, which the narrative called martins, they were possibly Rough-winged or Bank Swallows. These notes do, however, indicate the spiritual importance of this group of birds to the Omaha Tribe. An interesting speculation is how Purple Martins would have been captured. Were they trapped in a nesting cavity or captured while in flight?


The bird species noted in these artifacts document actual use of bird material by the Omaha Tribe. The use of feathers, other bird parts, or complete skins for important tribal objects indicates that these species were especially prominent and important in tribal lore and mythology. There are probably other ways such as myths or tribal knowledge, in which the Omaha Tribe would have been familiar with these birds and many others.


I would like to thank Dr. Thomas P. Myers for providing access to the collection of stored artifacts, in order to look at them and determine the use of bird material. Tom Labedz was very helpful in identifying bird feathers.

Literature Cited

Agersborg, A. 1885. Birds of Southeast Dakota. Auk 2: 276-289.

Aughey, S. 1878. Notes on the nature of the food of the birds of Nebraska. Appendix II: First annual report of the United States Entomological Commission for the year 1877 relating to the Rocky Mountain Locust. pp. 13-62.

Dorsey, G.A. 1906. The Pawnee: Mythology (Part 1). Carnegie Institute of Washington, Washington D.C. 546 pp.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska Birds: Breeding Status and Distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, NE. 148 pp.

Ducey, J. no date. The history of birds in Nebraska from 1750 to 1875. Unpublished manuscript.

Fletcher, A.C. 1900-01. The Hako: a Pawnee ceremony. Bureau of American Ethnology annual report 1900-01, Number 22, part 2. 372 pp.

Fletcher, A.C. and F. LaFlesche. 1972. The Omaha Tribe. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 660 pp. in two volumes.

Moore, J.H. 1986. The ornithology of Cheyenne religionists. Plains Anthropologist 31: 177-192.

O'Shea, J. M., G. D. Shrimper and J. Ludwickson. 1982. Ivory-billed woodpeckers at the Big Village of the Omaha. Plains Anthropologist 27-97: 245-248.

Parmalee, P. W. 1977. The avifauna from prehistoric Arikara sites in South Dakota. Plains Anthropologist 22-77:189-222.

Thwaites, R.G. 1969. Original journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Arno Press, New York. Vol. 1, pp. 64-141.

Ubelaker, D.H. and W.R. Wedel. 1975. Bird bones, burials, and bundles in Plains archeology. American Antiquity 40:444-452.

White, C.A. 1893. The raptores [sic.] of Omaha and vicinity. Oologist 10:138-140.

Wilson, G.L. 1928. Hidatsa eagle trapping. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume 30 (4):101-245.

Wissler, C., ed. 1916. Societies of the Plains Indians. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume 11. New York. 1,031 pp.

December 1992. Bird items and their use in some Omaha Indian artifacts. Nebraska Bird Review 60(4): 154-163.